The Physical Characteristics of Soil

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Soils are complex multi-dimensional systems with a wide range of physical characteristics. Soil physical properties control the behaviour of soil and determine many key soil processes such as water retention, cation exchange capacity and plant growth. They are the basis for a soil profile description (also called soil morphology).

Soil physical characteristics are often observed visually and can be described using a set of descriptors: colour, texture, structure, bulk density and consistency. The physical properties are important because they influence the way a soil behaves and how easy it is to work with, especially when wet or dry.

The size of the individual soil particles and their relative proportions defines the texture of a soil. It is generally classified as coarse sand, fine sand and clay, with different systems used to classify the soil separates.

A soil’s bulk density is the total mass of its solid matter per unit volume which includes pore space. Bulk density is a good indicator of the amount of organic matter and mineral content in the soil as well as the degree of compaction. The bulk density of mineral soils is around 1-1.6 g cm-3, whilst in organic soils and friable clay it is much lower.

Soil colour is the dominant spectral hue and the lightness of the soil, determined by the concentration of organic matter and the presence of minerals that reflect or absorb colours. A wet soil is typically darker in colour than a dried soil.

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